In the movie The Truman Show there is a moment when Truman realizes that the horizon he sees is just a backdrop that rips open to reveal the real world beyond. His entire life has taken place on the stage set of a reality TV show. Something like that actually happened last week. But it didn’t happen to just one person; it happened to an entire nation. Now the truth is out. The United States of America doesn’t really exist. It is USA: The Reality Show!
It took an absurdist plot twist to reveal the truth. The scriptwriters had been under pressure to come up with some new characters and storylines. How many times could they recycle that old plot of a mass shooting? By now the audience was left yawning no matter the body count. And natural disasters were all the same. Scenes of destruction in the wake of tornados, mudslides, and forest fires had ceased to shock. Ditto police shootings and urban protests. The political storyline was a big bore. How long can you make obstruction and inertia interesting?
Then one of the scriptwriters came up with a winning idea. How about we have a buffoonish billionaire with an orange bouffant and a history of bankruptcy and womanizing run for the Republican nomination and win? It just might work to titillate the audience enough for a ratings bonanza. The producers signed off on the concept and the scriptwriters got busy. Their meetings were quite a hoot as they egged each other on to more and more absurdities.
“How about we make him call Mexicans rapists and propose banning all Muslims from entering the country and he still wins?”
“How about we make him mock a female journalist’s menstruation and he still wins?
“How about we make him flip-flop multiple times on the issues every day and he still wins?”
“How about we make him promise to get rid of the national debt by just printing more money and he still wins?”
“How about we make his debate strategy be calling names like a schoolyard bully and he still wins?”
“Even better, how about we make him boast about the size of his penis in a debate and he still wins?”
The gales of laughter erupting from the room made the producers rub their hands with glee. This was ratings gold.
As luck would have it they had an actor ready and willing to play the part. He had starred in
a few spinoffs of USA: The Reality Show over the years and was looking for a bigger role. The first episodes of the new season were a big hit. Citizens of the Real World sat back with their super-sized tubs of popcorn and thoroughly enjoyed the extravaganza. This was a more entertaining season than that preachy one about America being the shining city on a hill. And all the recent violence had got a bit stale. It helped that the American people didn’t know they were acting in a reality show. It gave the whole thing an aura of authenticity that ensured success.
But then hubris caught up with the scriptwriters. The big Truman Show style reveal came in the episode where the thrice-married billionaire won the votes of Evangelicals even as he continued to boast of his sexual conquests and blamed another candidate for her husband’s affairs. It was even more egregious piling on to add a backstory about the billionaire’s claim that his battle with venereal disease was his personal Vietnam. They had finally gone too far. The scenic backdrop ripped open. The American people realized they were mere puppets forced to act the parts written for them in the greatest Reality Show of all time.
But we’ve already endured the End of History so surely we can survive the End of Reality? The End of History came in a humorous way in a popular book from my youth, 1066 And All That. After a satirical survey of the highs and lows of English history the book ends on this ominous note:
“America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .”
In a more philosophical vein Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man argued that we had reached:
“The end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Well that proved to be bumph and History carried on regardless. Will the End of Reality be more enduring? I hope so. I find living in a Reality Show quite comforting because the idea that the present American moment is indeed Reality is far too horrible to contemplate.